From Thanksgiving into the new year, El Paso and its desert surroundings are at their most beautiful. Hundreds of thousands of lights and a thirty-foot Christmas tree brighten San Jacinto Plaza. The giant star on the Franklin Mountains shines through the long nights. Frost glistens on car windshields during the morning’s bitter cold before melting away by noon. “Feliz Navidad” and “Mi Burrito Sabanero” garner frequent radio play. Mariachis welcome the competing Sun Bowl football teams to the city a few days after Christmas.
The plan for so many El Paso natives, including me, was always to return for the holidays, just like any other year. We’d notice the little things that had changed since our last visits. We’d notice too all the treasured things that persist, which keep the place feeling like home no matter how long we’ve been gone. Surrounded by the comforts of friends and family, we’d find ourselves daydreaming again about moving back.
But this isn’t any other year. We must stay away, watching from a distance as our city suffers. El Paso is a COVID-19 hot spot—its hospitals overwhelmed, the death toll rising. Because of the resurgent pandemic, Americans throughout the country are facing the disappointment of not being able to reunite with family for holiday celebrations. For El Pasoan expatriates, it’s an especially acute pain.
Among them is Angel Luis Molina Jr., a professor at Arizona State University who’s lived in Phoenix for nearly five years. This Thanksgiving, he’ll cook foods he’ll miss, like the chile con queso one of his aunts typically makes. Dishes like it help him feel connected to his hometown, which he hasn’t seen since last Christmas. “Not to be morbid, but what really solidified it for me was the arrival of the mobile morgues,” he says of his decision not to return for the holidays.
Those mobile morgues, now numbering ten, are a horrifying sign of how badly the virus has ravaged the city. The medical examiner’s office hasn’t been able to keep up with all the deaths that must be investigated. News coverage last weekend showed El Paso County inmates moving bodies into those mobile morgues. To supplement the overrun medical centers, the El Paso Convention and Performing Art Center—a few blocks from where the annual downtown Christmas celebration and ice skating takes place—is now a field hospital.
“It breaks my heart,” Cynthia Villareal says of watching what’s happening. She and her husband are from El Paso but now live in Los Angeles with their twenty-month-old daughter. When she recently earned a doctoral degree from the University of Southern California, she couldn’t celebrate the achievement in person with her family. She’ll miss eating menudo with her grandfather this Christmas, one of their holiday traditions.
“It makes me angry,” she says. “I’m not angry at the people. I’m more angry at the leadership for not taking it seriously. For the governor opening everything back up too soon. Bars and golf courses, those didn’t need to be open in May. That just gave the signal to the whole community that it was okay to go back to normal, when it really wasn’t.”
On May 1, Governor Greg Abbott began the reopening of Texas after the widespread closing of businesses during the spring. That day, as local health professionals expressed concerns that Abbott had acted too soon, El Paso announced 25 new COVID-19 cases and another 22 El Pasoans dead from the virus. More than six months later, the number of the cases in the county has reached more than 75,000, and deaths number nearly 800.
“All of El Paso is getting hammered by this thing. And there doesn’t seem to be any easy way out of it,” says Rodrigo Nuñez, who left El Paso for a software engineering job in Dallas seven years ago. He and his wife, also an El Pasoan, aren’t sure how they’ll celebrate the holidays. “It’ll be our first Thanksgiving alone. So my wife even asked me, ‘What tradition are we going to start?’”
Like many raised along the Texas-Mexico border, Nuñez effortlessly switches between English and Spanish. Sometimes it’s just a word, like masa or hoja. Sometimes it’s to tell a joke and laugh. Other times it’s to curse when describing the anger of watching the infighting between local authorities over how to combat the virus.
With daily cases and hospitalizations surging in late October, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, a Democrat, ordered a shutdown of all nonessential businesses. But a day later, when El Paso announced 1,347 new COVID cases, Mayor Dee Margo, a Republican, complained that the order violated Abbott’s decision to reopen the state. The El Paso Police Department, siding with Margo, said it wouldn’t enforce Samaniego’s order. Then, along with several El Paso restaurant owners, Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Samaniego. By shutting down nonessential business, Paxton claimed the order was “oppressing the El Paso community.”
After more back-and-forth, last Thursday—as El Paso announced 29 people had died in a single day from the effects of COVID-19—the appeals court halted Samaniego’s order. “It is important that we do not shutdown the economy ever again,” Paxton tweeted, as he praised the decision. Based on current trends, El Paso Matters says that between now and Christmas, more than one thousand more El Pasoans may die from COVID-19.
This year, the holiday celebrations will be somber in my hometown. It’s been surreal to watch the national news reporting from El Paso and to hear people there—with that familiar accent—all but beg for help. Seeing that has left me feeling helpless and even feeling a sense of guilt for having left.
Phone calls and video chats will help, but they won’t be enough for those eating Thanksgiving dinner alone. Especially not when each of those calls and chats involves asking about those who don’t have the privilege of working from home and about family members hospitalized because of COVID. Inevitably comes that question with no satisfying answer, as our minds futilely reckon with how the situation could have gotten so bad: “Qué está pasando?” What’s going on?
We say goodbye with an “I love you” and “tengan cuidado”—be careful. None of it is enough to keep my three-year-old daughter from asking, again, when she’ll visit her grandparents. At a time when the daily news is filled with tragedies that have life feeling especially precious, family members will be isolated from one another. Uncles won’t spend time with nephews, grandparents won’t be with grandchildren.
El Pasoans will eventually return. Maybe in the spring, maybe next summer. Hopefully next Thanksgiving, Christmas, or both. They’ll notice the little things that will have changed since they were last there. They’ll celebrate the treasures that remain, that make it home.
El Pasoans will go back. But, for a while yet, they must continue to worry about who might not be there when they do.